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Jamie Tobias Neely: Of truth and consequences

Jamie TobiasNeely

Public policy is filled with unintended consequences. Had J.K. Rowling lived in the United States, where she might have been forced to work a job she hated simply because she needed health insurance, we might never have met Harry Potter.

As it was, Rowling lived on what the British call “the dole” and relied on national health insurance while she dreamed up that astonishingly successful series. How many similar dreams have been thwarted in an America that doesn’t create conditions for them to flourish?

Here certain ideas go deep. There’s that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps entrepreneurialism. The fierce individualism. The deeply held religious convictions that seem to derive from the First Amendment itself.

These values are so firmly held in our national imagination that we often can’t detect when they’re crafting public policy that’s destined to harm us.

A national study scheduled to appear soon in the American Journal of Sociology shows that the counties in the United States most densely populated by conservative or evangelical Protestants are also those with the highest divorce rates. Yes, that’s right: According to researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa, the red states that most vigorously oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that it would weaken the tradition of marriage are actually the greatest threat to the institution.

Sociologist Jennifer Glass says conservative religious beliefs in states such as Arkansas and Alabama appear to harm young people in two ways. First, these denominations, which interpret the Bible literally, admonish young people to pursue chastity before marriage. As a result, young people wind up marrying at 18 and 19 years old. Others are quickly shooed into shotgun marriages when the purity part of the plan fails. Either way, they marry early, have children right away and quickly assume traditional gender roles.

That path might have been viable a generation or two ago, when the costs of raising children were lower and the economy provided jobs with middle-class wages for men with only a high-school education.

Similar young men now, Glass says, are the most thwarted by the current economy. They often live in communities that distrust higher education or lack a community college or a four-year university. They don’t qualify for jobs that would actually support a family.

But here’s the curious thing about the results of this study by Glass and Philip Levchak: Not only are divorce rates higher for members of conservative Protestant denominations in these counties, they’re also higher for the rest of the population, too.

That’s because, Glass says, conservative Protestants not only influence the social culture, but they also wield the most political power in those regions (primarily the South and some portions of the West and Midwest). These firm believers advocate for policies that seem reasonable to them, such as providing abstinence-only education, limiting the availability of reliable contraception for teens, prohibiting pharmacies from selling emergency contraceptives and opposing abortion clinics. The unintended consequence: The whole population winds up at a higher risk for divorce.

Don’t be mistaken: Religion in itself is not detrimental to marriage; regions with greater secularism also have higher divorce rates, Glass says. The sweet spot for marriage stability appears to be in those regions of the country most densely populated by mainline Protestants, such as Methodists and Presbyterians. These researchers think couples who attend church services together also have a greater sense of shared meaning and purpose. Their congregations encourage members to work out conflicts and support them in keeping their marriages intact.

But when far-right Protestantism is used to drive politics, even well-meaning people can craft negative consequences.

This week the Idaho Legislature has been considering a bill that would protect businesses from being sued for discriminating against customers based on expression of religion. The idea would be to protect a religiously conservative florist, for example, from being sued for refusing to sell wedding bouquets to a same-sex couple. But opponents say the bill would also make discrimination legal in the state of Idaho.

Elsewhere, politicians are arguing that religious beliefs should be allowed to restrict health insurance coverage for contraceptives or abortion. Sounds reasonable? The effects, such as financial strains and marital instability, on families harmed by these policies are not. So many sad, unintended consequences.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is
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